This week: new novels from Elizabeth Strout and Jeff VanderMeer.
There are no wasted words in Alomar’s (Fullblood Arabian) beautiful collection of very short fictions. Philosophical and subversive, these tiny parables deconstruct human failings with a keen insight. The title story, an anecdote about the uneven teeth of a comb, reveals a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of social stratification. “Love Letter” tells the story of a couple separated by class, culture, and distance both metaphorical and physical. The nameless narrator emigrates during an era of oppression, mirroring Alomar’s exile from Syria. The lovers continue a written correspondence, but, as revolution and civil war divide their homeland, chaos threatens to sever the pair forever. In “The Shining Idea,” a cynical father debates with his optimistic son about the inherent darkness of humanity. “The world is a blank page,” the boy explains. The collection delves into universal themes of aging—“Journey of Life”—and love and loss. These stories deliver the kind of stunning maxims that a cunning master might spout to an eagerly waiting acolyte. By working together with C.J. Collins on the translation, the author succeeds in highlighting the inherent poetics of his prose. This lyricism obfuscates some narratives, and there are instances in which Alomar seems to sacrifice clarity in favor of playfully testing the limits of style. However, gorgeous, paradoxical metaphors reveal more depth with further consideration, and the apparent contradictions often reflect incongruities prevalent in society: Alomar’s work swims in the aspects of the modern world that do not make sense upon closer inspection, like the correlations between poverty and capitalism. These brief narratives are not nihilistic; they convey a plea for progress and improvement. Alomar’s writing brims with hope, and this slim volume is full of compassion and depth.
Mexico City native Carlos Portillo always looked up to his older brother, Felix, who shared his passion for food and did things his own way, rather than follow in their wealthy father’s path. Now Felix is dead, but Carlos still feels his presence, urging him to leave home and follow his dreams, instead of doing a summer internship with his father then attending college in America. On a whim, Carlos runs away to Seattle and takes a job as a dishwasher at a renowned restaurant. Carlos is determined to prove his culinary skills to his boss, but trouble brews when he falls for the chef’s daughter, Emma, and is told that if he dates her he’ll be fired. In a story pitting ambition against love and deference against independence, Alsaid (Never Always Sometimes) strongly evokes the frenzied atmosphere of a restaurant kitchen and the equally turbulent emotions of a young man struggling to sort his priorities. Carlos’s frequent visions of Felix add extra dimension, shedding light on the brothers’ history and underscoring Carlos’s underlying grief. An Alloy Entertainment property. Ages 14–up.
Brashares (the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series) traces the tangled threads that connect two households in this moving novel set in and around New York City. Before Ray’s parents met, his mother was married to a man named Robert. That marriage ended in a bitter divorce, but one good thing came out of it: Ray’s older half- sisters, Emma, Mattie, and Quinn. Remarried, Robert has another daughter Ray’s age, Sasha, whom Ray has never met. Ray often wonders about Sasha when he stays at the Hamptons summer house both families share; he and Sasha stay in the same bedroom during the weeks their respective families are there. Then one eventful summer when Emma gets engaged and Mattie discovers a buried family secret, Ray finally meets Sasha and there’s an instant mutual attraction. Both funny and tragic, this sharply observed drama recognizes the complexity of split families trying to heal and the ill effects of longstanding grudges. Brashares’s masterful orchestration of plot, multidimensional characters, and intriguing subplots will delight her fans and newcomers alike. Ages 14–up.
Tech pioneer, author, and activist Bunnell (who died in October) has written a melancholy and fascinating account of a 280-mile road trip from his boyhood home of Alliance, Neb., to the Pine Indian Reservation, a journey that takes him through dramatic terrain and landmarks from the tragic history of the Lakota tribes. Bunnell, a small-town kid who became an idealistic schoolteacher on the reservation, smuggled food to protestors during the 1973 siege at Wounded Knee and developed a lifelong friendship with the charismatic Vernell White Thunder, a direct descendant of Oglala Lakota chiefs and medicine men. In vivid prose, Bunnell weaves memories of his childhood and youth with a sweeping history of the Lakota during and since white expansion into the west—from the U.S. army massacres of women and children, the battle at Little Bighorn, and the murder of Crazy Horse, to present-day struggles with poverty, racism, and alcohol. White Thunder’s family anecdotes and successful efforts to merge his heritage and the modern world, as Bunnell, explains, provide an inspiring counterpoint to the nightmare of history. After receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis, Bunnell devoted himself to completing this account, and it stands as a tribute to a seemingly defeated people who recovered their pride in the Wounded Knee standoff.
Forty millennia separate the two female protagonists of this impressively executed novel from the author of The Bear. In the distant past, a Neanderthal named Girl struggles to define her role in a depleted family that includes her aged mother, Big Mother; her brother, Him; and Runt, a foundling. Now of childbearing age, Girl is secretly impregnated by Him and soon thereafter cast out by Big Mother, and though the family is eventually reunited, a failed hunt leaves several of them dead. Girl is left to care for Runt while leading them to “the meeting place,” where they’ll hopefully join a new family. Interspersed with Girl’s story are flash-forwards to Rose, the pregnant anthropologist who unearths Girl’s bones positioned intimately beside those of a human. The births of both Rose and Girl’s children, past and present, threaten to destroy the lives of the respective mothers, as Rose is forced to leave the dig site, while Girl must deliver the baby alone in a snowstorm. The contrasting and similar reactions to motherhood are emblematic of the book’s greatest strength—its ability to collapse time and space to draw together seemingly dissimilar species: ancestors and successors, writer and reader.
In this mouthwatering work, New Scientist correspondent Holmes turns the kitchen into a laboratory, probing the nature of gustatorial delight to find better ways to think and talk about the foods we enjoy (or don’t). Holmes opens by carefully walking readers through what flavor actually is, which turns out to be much more than just the sense of taste. Taste is vital because it helps a person detect immediately what will supply carbohydrates (sweet), electrolytes (salt), and protein (umami) while avoiding poisons (bitter) and food that has gone bad (sour). Most people understand that scent is a component of flavor, but sight, sound, touch, and even mental states such as expectation play into the way we perceive our foods. Holmes also addresses the ways in which flavor potentially affects appetite, as scientists remain undecided on that question. He takes a fascinating and mildly disturbing foray into the industrial flavor industry and shares what gives certain foods their particular flavor. He concludes by taking a look at the way chefs and amateurs cooks combine flavors. He encourages gastronomic appreciation, since “almost anyone can get better at appreciating flavor.” As Holmes runs through terrific experiments and describes strange technologies, he makes food science fun and approachable.
When Liptrot leaves rehab in London, she returns to her Orkney childhood home, the interior and exterior landscapes of which she maps in this spectacular memoir. Winds lash the land, sometimes moving tons of rock, as Liptrot weathers her cravings. On an island where the map can be “altered in the morning,” Liptrot remembers her drunken buzz through London. Descriptions of millennial city life are sorrowfully precise: “Years went by in a blur of waiting for the weekend, or for my article to be published, or for the hangover to end.” Later, she wonders, “Had all my life been leading up to doing Kundalini yoga with a bunch of pissheads... in various states of... mental anguish on an institutional carpet?” And yet, transcendence follows. She drives Orkney at night listening for threatened birds. She searches for a fata morgana, marvels at seals, but nevertheless wonders—why bother when one can “watch nature documentaries on YouTube?” Even with “twenty tabs open,”, this magnificent memoir is a record of transformation in its truest sense—what it means to leave behind the tabs for experience. Orkney legends tell of seals changing into humans, but, here, Liptrot is the shape-shifter, peeling off her wetsuit like blubber after snorkeling in the ice-cold sea.
In her latest work, Strout achieves new levels of masterful storytelling. Damaged lives can be redeemed but, as she eloquently demonstrates in this powerful, sometimes shocking, often emotionally wrenching novel, the emotional scars can last forever. If some readers felt that Strout’s previous novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, was too subtle and oblique about Lucy’s hellish childhood, here Strout reveals specific details of the horrible circumstances in which Lucy and her siblings were raised, as recollected by some of the inhabitants of Amgash, Ill., and the surrounding communities. Using the novel-in-stories format of Olive Kitteridge, Strout again proves Tolstoy’s observation that each family is unhappy in its own way. Except for one episode in which Lucy herself comes back for a tortured sibling reunion, she is the absent but omnipresent thread that weaves among the dozen or so characters who are have suffered secret misery and are longing for love and understanding. Some are lucky: one of the five Mumford sisters reunites with her runaway mother in Italy; another, an angry young girl, is suddenly able to see the way to a brighter future. Others, including a Vietnam veteran with PTSD and a rich woman who is complicit in her husband’s depraved behavior survive despite the baggage of tortured memories. “They had grown up on shame; it was the nutrient of their soil,” one character acknowledges. Strout’s prose is pared down, yet rich with implication. It is left for the character in the final episode, Lucy’s cousin Abel, who despite a similarly deprived childhood is now a happy and successful business executive, husband, father, and grandfather, to observe, in what may be his final moments, that “Anything was possible for anyone.”
VanderMeer, author of the acclaimed Southern Reach trilogy, has made a career out of eluding genre classifications, and with Borne he essentially invents a new one. In a future strewn with the cast-off experiments of an industrial laboratory known only as the Company, a scavenger named Rachel survives alongside her lover, Wick, a dealer of memory-altering beetles, with whom she takes shelter from the periodic ravages of a giant mutant bear named Mord. One day, caught in Mord’s fur, Rachel finds the bizarre, shape-shifting creature “like a hybrid of sea anemone and squid” she calls Borne. Rachel adopts Borne and takes on its education over Wick’s objections. But Borne proves a precocious student, experiencing more and more complex transformations, testing Rachel’s loyalty as it undertakes a personal mission that threatens Rachel and Wick’s fragile existence even as it brings painful truths to the surface—truths like Wick’s mysterious past with the Company, the identity of the mercurial rival he calls the Magician, the origin of the feral children who roam the wasteland, and even the circumstances of Rachel’s own interrupted childhood. Reading like a dispatch from a world lodged somewhere between science fiction, myth, and a video game, the textures of Borne shift as freely as those of the titular whatsit. What’s even more remarkable is the reservoirs of feeling that VanderMeer is able to tap into throughout Rachel and Wick’s postapocalyptic journey into the Company’s warped ruins, resulting in something more than just weird fiction: weird literature.